Do Michigan kids have a ‘right to read?’ Activists await ruling in Detroit lawsuit.

Image by ludi from Pixabay

A prominent Detroit education activist said that if a lawsuit brought forth by Detroit students against the state of Michigan centering on their constitutional right to access literacy fails, it will send a signal that Michigan government doesn’t care about Motor City kids.   

“If they come down with a ruling that reading is not fundamental, then something is wrong with this country,” said Helen Moore, who attended U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit hearing in Cincinnati in September and supports the lawsuit. 

Detroit education activist Helen Moore | Ken Coleman

In the 136-page Gary B. v. Snyder lawsuit, the plaintiffs argue that outdated textbooks, classrooms without teachers black mold and rats is all too common. The “right to read” lawsuit demands that the state of Michigan ensure that students receive:

  •       Evidence-based literacy instruction at the elementary and secondary level
  •       A stable, supported and appropriately trained teaching staff,
  •       Basic instructional materials
  •       Safe school conditions that do not interfere with students’ learning

“At the Osborn schools, the roof leaked for two years. Every time it rained or snowed, buckets were put out to catch dripping water. The walls were covered in water stains. The roof was not repaired until the principal obtained an outside grant through a private foundation to cover the costs. In one classroom, a window that fell out was not fixed for over a year,” the plaintiffs argued. “During the winter of 2015-16, the teacher covered the gaping hole with corrugated cardboard, duct tape, and a bookcase. 

“In another classroom, a window was broken for over a year; the window, which was stuck slightly ajar, could not be opened fully in the summer or closed in the winter to address the extreme temperatures. An Osborn MST [math, science and technology] teacher and students became temporarily trapped in a classroom when the doorknob broke.”

The suit was originally filed in 2016 against then-Gov. Rick Snyder and state officials and demands for Detroit students “access to literacy by ensuring that they are provided with evidence-based, grade-appropriate programs for literacy instruction and intervention, and monitoring conditions that deny students access to literacy such as lack of teachers and deplorable school conditions.”

Nessel breaks with Whitmer in Detroit literacy lawsuit

In June, Attorney General Dana Nessel — a Democrat who was elected in 2018 — sided with the plaintiffs. 

In an amicus brief, Nessel argued, “Although the U.S. Supreme Court has not yet recognized a right to a public education, it left the door ajar with respect to the right to a minimally adequate education. The time has come to push that door wide open. In fact, it is long overdue. The court can and should recognize the right to a minimally adequate education.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, another Democrat who was elected last November, is now a defendant in the suit. As a candidate for governor, Whitmer opposed the lawsuit. However, earlier this year the Advance reported that attorneys for Whitmer argued against the plaintiffs. Deputy Solicitor General Eric Restuccia — who works for the Department of Attorney General, but was representing Whitmer — signed a motion that said the case should be dismissed.

“Governor Whitmer has always believed children have a birthright to a good education,” Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown told the Advance. “When the governor took office, she rejected the position of the previous administration, which argued to the contrary. She has and will continue to fight to ensure every child reads, demonstrated by the $31.5 million she just secured for literacy coaches.”

Moore said that Whitmer’s flip is “troubling.” 

“We expected her to get on the other side and make some kind of deal,” she said.  

Whitmer calls for state’s removal from literacy suit

The state of Michigan has had direct oversight of the Detroit Public Schools Community District for much of the last 20 years. It included a state takeover of the DPS from 1999 until 2005 and the appointment of the state emergency manager in 2009 that lasted until 2016.

Former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder at the press preview of the 2014 North American International Auto Show January 14, 2014 in Detroit, Michigan. | Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

“I have friends who can’t read, but it’s not because they aren’t smart; it’s because the state has failed them,” said Jamarria Hall, a student at Osborn High at the time of lawsuit filing. “I feel like Gov. Snyder doesn’t care about me or my friends. We stood up for ourselves and wrote letters asking him to fix our school. But he never gave us a response.”

However, Robert Sedler, Wayne State University law professor, predicts that the court will not rule in favor of the plaintiffs.

“The court is not going to get involved in trying to supervise how the Detroit Public Schools goes about trying to teach reading and literacy,” Sedler said.

American Federation of Teachers, the union that represents more than 4,000 Detroit school educators, supports the lawsuit.

“AFT Michigan has been very supportive of the Right to Read lawsuit,” said AFT Michigan President David Hecker. “While talented Detroit educators go over and beyond to help their students it is difficult to overcome, the unsuccessful leadership of Detroit Public Schools by state appointed emergency managers, Gov. Snyder’s failed Education Achievement Authority and the gross underfunding of public schools, among other factors. 

AFT Michigan President David Hecker | Susan J. Demas

“While resort to the courts is one avenue to redress the harm done Detroit children by the prior administration, what is truly needed is corrective legislation to ensure that access to education all of our children deserve is not just the preserve of students born to affluence.”

Mark Rosenbaum, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, argued that the suit has far-reaching implications.

“According to national assessment data collected by the federal government, Detroit Public School students rank last among all major school districts in literacy ad they have been so ranked for four consecutive reporting periods,” he said at the time of suit’s filing. “These appalling outcomes and the persistent, abysmal conditions at Detroit schools are unprecedented in our nation, yet literacy is the cornerstone of all education, as it is the cornerstone of our democracy.  Absent literacy, a child has no way to obtain knowledge, communicate with the world, or participate in the institutions and activities of citizenship.”

Nikolai Vitti, Detroit Public Schools Community District general superintendent, supports the plaintiffs and attended the Court of Appeals hearing in October.

Nikolai Vitti, DPSCD, general superintendent | Ken Coleman

“No district in this country experienced the brutal history of what DPS endured, more importantly, what children endured. No state government, regardless of legal interpretation, can morally say children do not have a right to literacy. During emergency management, students were denied a strong public education and there must be accountability for that. 

“The state took over the district, without the people’s consent, and the district went backwards. Adults need to be held accountable for that and more importantly today’s children cannot suffer the same consequences.”

The Tri-Alliance for Public Education, a membership organization that advocates Oakland, Macomb and Wayne county schools districts, also supports the lawsuit.

DPSCD Literacy Night at Academy of the Americas school | Ken Coleman

“It isn’t hard to imagine why any parent might feel justified in suing over our state’s failure to properly fund public education,” said Executive Director Robert McCann. “As we saw when Gov. Whitmer presented a budget earlier this year that would move Michigan’s K-12 funding in the right direction, we still have significant political roadblocks in the way of making that a reality. 

“Having a judge step in and force Lansing to work through those obstacles may ultimately be what’s necessary to fix this problem once and for all and ensure that schools have the funding they need to give every Michigan student the education they deserve.”

Disclosure: Ken Coleman has done work for the Detroit Federation of Teachers.

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman reports on Southeast Michigan, education, civil rights and voting rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.